Tossed out of their garden paradise, Adam and Eve now live east of Eden. John Steinbeck wrote a novel by that title. East of Eden is a multi-generational saga that is mostly unsavory. So is the rest of the primeval human story in Genesis. So, to be honest, is the rest of human history since then. Names and faces change over the centuries, but human nature doesn’t change much.

In the spring of 1991, Rodney King was driving drunk when he was pulled over by Los Angeles police. Four officers beat him savagely. A year later, riots erupted when the officers were acquitted of wrongdoing. King pleaded for calm, saying, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Well, no, we can’t. That’s the problem, and it’s not confined to the streets of Los Angeles. It’s a universal human problem, since the dawn of recorded time.

The Bible traces it back to the disobedience of Adam and Eve. When they disobeyed God in the garden, Adam and Eve became estranged from God, from God’s good creation, from each other, from their very selves. Their estrangement shows itself in many ways, but perhaps no more clearly than in the story of their two sons, Cain and Abel.

Cain is the eldest. He becomes a farmer. Abel, the youngest, is a shepherd. They make an offering to the Lord one day. This is long before rules for offerings were codified for Israel in the teaching of Moses. Still, it seems to be true that all ancient peoples had some sort of system of sacrifice to their gods, as if that were somehow written into human DNA.

Cain offers the fruit of the soil. Abel brings fat from the firstborn of his flock. For some reason, God has regard for Abel and his offering but not for Cain and his offering.

It’s hard to say why God accepts one offering but not the other. It’s not as if God favors shepherds over farmers, or deems animal sacrifices inherently superior to sacrifices of grain or produce.

Maybe it has to do with birth order. It is a common theme in the Old Testament that though society blesses the older sibling, God tends to favor the younger one. Count the times the younger one wins: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over all his older brothers, David over all his brothers – and let’s not forget Rachel and her sister Leah.

However it might be explained, Cain sees God’s choice as arbitrary. And he can’t handle it. He is enraged.

“Why are you so angry?” God asks. Then God provides a sort of explanation. “If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lurking at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

It sounds like something Yoda might say in some “Star Wars” movie. Whatever does it mean? Did God really say, “If you do well, won’t you be accepted?” Whatever happened to unconditional love?

It seems that God sees something wrong in Cain’s attitude. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews says it has to do with faith. Abel is the first of the ancients to be commended for having faith, Hebrews says. By faith Abel offers a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Abel is righteous – that is, in right relationship with God – while Cain is not righteous. Cain’s heart is not in the right place. (Hebrews 11.4)

As you’ll recall, trust was the issue that alienated Adam and Eve from God in the first place. We can’t know what brought Cain to the point where he does not trust God. He can still talk to God, face to face, but he does not trust God. And God knows it. “Sin is lurking at your door,” God tells Cain. “You must master it.”

This is the first mention of the word “sin” in the Bible. Not even before, when Adam and Eve sampled the forbidden fruit, was the word “sin” used. It’s not a casual, one-time affair. Sin is a lingering attitude. It’s the opposite of trust, the opposite of faith. More than an attitude, it’s a state of being. It’s a state of being that is so natural to us that we cannot conceive of life without it. 

We are immersed in sin the way fish are immersed in water. We are so surrounded by sin, it is so much a part of our existence, that we are not even aware of its presence. Like water, sin seeps into everything, becomes a part of everything, tries to take over everything, and becomes a living presence in our world.

Indeed, as the Apostle Paul says, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” though we do have enough of them. Rather, our struggle is against those things that embody sin in our world. Paul calls them rulers and authorities, cosmic powers, spiritual forces of evil in the highest places. (Ephesians 6:12-13) These are institutions, traditions, tribes and gangs, political parties, economic and political systems and yes, even (and maybe especially) religions.

Sin is embodied in many culturally isms that we swim in unknowingly – sexism, racism, nationalism, ageism, classism, and imperialism, to name only a few. In whatever form it finds itself, sin is filled with desire. That desire is to perpetuate itself, expand itself, make itself even more powerful. It lurks outside your door. It’s there, even if you can’t see it. It’s waiting for a moment to pounce, grab you by the throat and rip the good out of you. “You must master it,” God tells Cain. That’s not what Cain wants to hear.

“Let’s go for a walk,” Cain says to Abel. And when they are in a remote place, Cain kills his brother. Soon God comes by. You wonder why God didn’t come by earlier. God asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Just as God asked Adam, “What have you done?” now God asks Cain, “What have you done?” It’s less a question than a cry of despair.

“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” God says. Earlier God cursed the ground because of Adam’s sin. Now God curses the ground that Cain has nurtured so that it will never again yield to his care or produce any abundance for him. Cain must become a fugitive and wanderer.

Now it’s Cain who cries out in despair. “This is more than I can bear! I’ll be wanted man wherever I go. I’ll live in fear of being murdered in revenge for what I’ve done.” No, God says. I’ll put a mark on you so that everyone knows that whoever kills Cain will suffer payback seven times.

So Cain leaves the Lord’s presence and settles further east of Eden in the land of Nod. There he meets a woman who is never named. Her sudden appearance in the story is never explained either, no more than the presence of those who might want to kill Cain is explained. There obviously are more people in this world than we have been told about. But our narrator shows no interest in satisfying our curiosity about where they came from or how they came to be.

Cain founds a city and names it after his son, Enoch. Time passes. Cain’s great-great-great grandson is named Lamech. Lamech has two wives. He boasts to them: “Listen! I have killed a man for wounding me and a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged seven times, I will be avenged seventy-seven times.”

This is how low those made in the image of God have sunk. And it keeps getting worse. Finally, in chapter six of Genesis we read: “The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.” (Genesis 6:5-6 CEB)

That summary is a bit of an exaggeration. In this family tree of scoundrels, there are a few notable exceptions. One is Enoch, not the Enoch who was son of Cain but another Enoch who is directly descended from Adam. “Enoch walked with God,” we’re told (Genesis 5.22). Enoch’s son Methuselah lives 969 years, the longest lifespan recorded in all the Bible’s genealogies. The Bible widely regards longevity as a sign of God’s favor, so Methuselah also must walk with God. So does his grandson, Noah, the hero of the great flood story.

They stand out because they live in right relationship with God, and so many others do not. What has gone wrong with humanity? Why does evil continue and even intensify?

The explanation we’ve all heard is labeled “original sin.” That term has about as many interpretations as there are interpreters, and few of the interpretations are remotely satisfactory. The idea is that we all inherit a sinful nature from Adam and Eve. How sin is passed down to us is hard to explain. Some say that sin is transmitted through sexual reproduction. Others say it’s transmitted through social structures handed from one generation to the next.

However we get it, it’s impossible for us not to get it. If we are human, we live in sin. It is a fundamental corruption of our nature. You’ll often hear the term “total depravity,” meaning that every aspect of our nature is marred. Try as we might, we cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, does not speculate on how sin is transmitted. He says simply: “Adam sinned; his posterity suffers; and that, in consequence of his sin.” (“The Doctrine of Original Sin,” Part II; IX, 243) Note that it is not a punishment for Adam’s sin, but a consequence of it. We suffer because others sinned, and we perpetuate the sin in our own lives so that others suffer as a consequence of our sin.

Having inherited it, we spread it around and pass it on. It’s a vicious circle only God can break. The Christian message is that God breaks the cycle in Jesus Christ. Sin is an infection, Wesley says. It can be cured. The cure is the love of God shown to us in Jesus, who is both human and divine.

How does Jesus escape being caught in the trap of sin? The Virgin Birth is one answer. Conceived by the Holy Spirit rather than by sexual union, Jesus is born without the taint of sin. Does that mean that men are the carrier of sin? Some think so. Roman Catholics say it’s necessary that the Virgin Mary also was conceived without sexual union; hence, the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, the notion that Mary also was conceived without sex.

We won’t follow those rabbit trails of thought. They would lead us considerably astray from our simple inquiry into the origin of sin. Here’s the gist of it: Whether they realized it or not, Adam and Eve had a choice between following divine wisdom and seeking wisdom from the wrong source. They chose poorly, and their choice affects our choices today.

Here’s how it’s explained by such existential theologians as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. The origin of sin, they say, lies with the fragility of human life. Our limits as creatures leave us feeling insecure and anxious. In our anxiety, we make poor choices. We could find true security trusting in God, but instead we depend on our own resources. Instead of trusting God, we try to be like God.

In the letter that bears his name, James the brother of Jesus offers as good an explanation of sin that you’ll ever hear.

Wisdom from God is gentle, peace-loving and full of mercy, James says. But human wisdom leads to bitter envy and selfish ambition, and from there to disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3.13-18)

James says: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from the desires that are at war within you? You long for something that you don’t have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight.” (James 4.1-2)

You don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it, and you don’t dare ask God for it because “you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings.” (James 4.3)

And doesn’t that go back to God’s cryptic message to Cain? “If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lurking at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

You can’t master it by yourself. You must rely on God for the strength. Cain wouldn’t. Most people won’t. Won’t you be among those who do?

“Murder” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Oct. 27, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 32:1-7, Genesis 4:1-17.


In the Garden of Eden, the fruit of one tree was forbidden, and Adam and Eve ate it in defiance of God’s command. In popular imagination, they ate an apple. Since ancient times, though, many interpreters have thought it must have been a fig, because once they saw shame in their nakedness, they made loincloths for themselves out of fig leaves.

A little irony there, right? They clothe themselves with leaves from the tree whose fruit has opened their eyes to their need for clothing.

Well, it doesn’t matter what kind of fruit it was. What matters is that they were forbidden to eat it, and they ate it anyway. This moment is usually described as “the Fall,” with a capital “F,” meaning the single act that caused all of humanity to fall from a state of God’s grace into a state of sin, or rebellion against God.

I prefer to think of it as “the stumble.” It was a mistake, yes – a fundamental failure to trust. But I think “the Fall” comes not when they initially fail to trust God but when they seal the deal by trying to cover it up.

They have been naked and unashamed. They have lived in Paradise in a state of innocence. Then they encounter a talking snake who subtly casts doubt on God’s trustworthiness and convinces them that they should seek wisdom not from God but from a source forbidden by God.

Our narrator explains what happens with characteristic directness. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”

They sought the knowledge of good and evil, and in one moment, they got it. It must have been like trying to drink water from a firehose, as the saying goes. The experience is overwhelming and shattering. They know immediately that everything in their world has changed radically.

Once innocent lovers, they now see each other differently. They can’t be sure yet what it is, but something is wrong. They have to cover themselves. They have to hide from each other. Once one, they no longer feel close. They feel separate and alone. An immense gulf has opened between them.

It gets worse. They hear God walking in the garden in the coolness of the evening. They hide. They don’t want God to see them in their degraded state.

I wonder what sound God makes walking in the garden. Is it like a soft and gentle breeze? Or is it like a booming, powerful stamping? Some translators think what they hear is not the sound of God walking, but the sound of God’s voice while God is walking. What is God saying while walking? Could it be that God is humming – perhaps humming the tune of creation? Whatever noise God makes, they once would have welcomed it. Now they dread it and hide.

God calls out. “Where are you?” It’s not that God doesn’t know. God knows. But God must ask.

At least the man answers honestly. “I heard you coming, and I hid because I’m afraid because I’m naked.” Actually, he’s no longer naked because he’s now wearing a loincloth made of fig leaves. But he feels naked. He feels vulnerable.

He feels guilty, too. He’s done wrong, and he knows it. This sudden knowledge of good and evil weighs on him. The sudden awareness that he has not done good but instead has done evil burdens him heavily.

He feels shame, too – for the first time ever. He is no longer comfortable in his own skin. He does not like the person he has become. Not only has he done wrong. He is wrong. It’s an awful feeling, and both he and the woman must be crushed by it. They are not who they were only moments before, and they hate what they have become.

Ever done something like that? Ever had a choice between right and wrong and you consciously chose the wrong, and now you feel terrible about it, and you feel even more terrible knowing that’s there’s nothing you can do to change what you’ve done?

You can’t go back to the moment and make a different choice. You get no do-overs, no mulligans, no second chances to get it right the first time. You had your moment, and you blew it.

Ever done something like that? Of course, you have. That’s the human condition. We’ve all been there. We’ve all done it. What’s worse, we’ve not been there only once. We’ve been there many times. We keep doing it over and over.

I have a choice – and I do the wrong thing. I have a choice – and I do the wrong thing. What’s the matter with me? That’s part of what this story explains, and explains in dramatic fashion that can be so much more clear and transparent than all the dogmatic statements we could make to explain it. Try as we might to do the right thing, each of us and all of us keep doing the wrong thing.

The Apostle Paul was familiar with this phenomenon. He says, “I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do.” (Romans 7:19, CEB) “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24, NRSV)

It’s not me who does these evil things, Paul concludes. It’s sin living within me. (Romans 7.17) Though our story never calls it sin, that’s the weight that Adam and Eve now feel. They’re not who they were just moments before. They’re different now, and they hate the difference. And they hate being found out. They hate feeling naked before their beloved God whom they have betrayed.

God asks, “Who told you that you were naked?” Again, God knows. Nobody told them. They figured it out on their own. But God must ask, to hold them accountable. “Have you eaten from the tree I told you not to eat from?”

It’s time for true confession. But that’s not what they do. Instead, they play the blame game. It’s the first time they’ve done it. It must sound pretty clever to them. We do it all the time, of course. We do it almost automatically, without even thinking what we’re doing.

Adam first: “The woman you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

Good job, Adam. Blame her. You may have been standing there the whole time, saying not one word while Eve was tricked by the snake, but it’s all her fault. When she first brought the fruit to her lips, you could have said something, but you didn’t. You could have reached out and stopped her, but you didn’t.

No, it’s all her fault – “and, if you member, God, you’re the one who gave her to me, so it’s not like you’re totally innocent here either. You should have warned me that she’d get me into trouble. I’m just a blameless bystander. Blame her, not me.”

You can be sure that God does not buy it, but God follows along for the moment. God asks Eve, “What have you done?” And she again passes the buck. “The snake tricked me, and I ate.”

You might imagine at this point the snake shrugging sheepishly. “Who, me? True, I egged her on, but she didn’t have to do it, did she? She could have chosen differently. She could have chosen the right rather than the wrong. But she didn’t. Not my fault.”

God appears to think differently. God pronounces a curse on the snake. “Upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”

That’s apparently meant as an explanation of why snakes slither on their bellies rather than walk or crawl. Then comes an explanation of why humans and snakes don’t get along so well. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

As scary as they can be, we have a lingering fascination with snakes. Because it can shed its skin and emerge renewed, the serpent has long been a symbol of transformation and rebirth. Snakes have such ability; humans do not. We must find rebirth by other means, through the grace of God.

Some interpreters see here a reference to a future time when God’s Messiah will crush Satan under his feet. But there is no talk in this narrative about Satan or a fallen angel. This is a common garden snake God is dealing with, and apparently dealing with harshly.

Now God turns to the woman. There is no mention of a curse here. Rather, God announces consequences. It’s as if God is saying, now that you know the difference between good and bad, you are going to experience more of the bad than you would have before.

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing,” God says. “In pain you shall bring forth children.” About such pain I cannot personally testify, but I have been told by many women that it is the worst pain they have ever endured, and it’s redeemed only by the birth of a beloved child.

Three’s an old joke about why men don’t bear children. If they did, there would be only one child in each family, because no man would ever go through that pain more than once. From ancient days to today, childbirth is dangerous, and many women die trying to bring new life into the world.

The next consequence that God announces is one of the most misinterpreted and misunderstood texts in the Bible. God tells the woman: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Indeed, the first thing the man does after this scene is give the woman a name. He calls her Eve. By naming her, he claims authority over her.

But male dominance is not God’s will. God gave humans dominion over the animals, not over each other. Patriarchy is not part of the design of the universe. Nor is any other kind of subjugation. All forms of hegemony are a consequence of sin. As Jesus said, that’s the way of the world, but it’s not my way; it’s not God’s way.” (Matthew 20.25-28) Like the pain of childbirth, it’s not a good thing. It’s an evil to be endured, opposed and destroyed.

Just as God uttered no curse on the woman, God utters no curse on the man. Instead, God curses the ground because of what the man has done. “In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat until you return to the ground from which I made you, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Literally, I’m told, the Hebrew here refers not actually to the sweat of your brow but to sweat so heavy it drips off your nose.

Note, please, that work itself is not a curse from God. Rather, the difficulty and near futility of some work is what God announces as a consequence for sin. The man and the woman worked in the garden before the Fall, and their burden was light. Work becomes a heavy burden only after the Fall, as a consequence of sin.

God’s good creation suffers as well. It truly is the innocent bystander here. Yet it is cursed to be less productive than it could be until finally the curse of sin is destroyed. All creation waits with eager longing for this day, Paul says in his letter to the Romans. Creation has been subjected to futility all these years, and it groans as if in labor until the day it will be set free from bondage. (Romans 8.19-24)

Sometimes we call this story the fall of humanity from grace. And yet, for all that they have disobeyed and now will suffer the consequences of their disobedience, God has not abandoned them. They are still covered by God’s grace. Two signs are obvious.

First, God dispenses with those flimsy loincloths made of leaves. God makes garments of skin for them. Does this mean that an animal had to die for their sin? Perhaps. Surely it won’t be the last time.

Second, God drives them out of the Garden of Eden. It remains a protected paradise, and they don’t belong in it anymore. In the center of the garden, not far from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, is another tree. This is the Tree of Life. If they were to eat from this tree, they might become immortal.

God will not allow that. God does not want them to live forever in their degraded state. So it’s another sign of grace that God keeps them away from that tree.

The tree appears again in the book of Revelation, when God brings heaven down to earth. It grows in the center of the New Jerusalem, and every month it produces 12 kinds of fruit for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:2)

The tree also appears in the gospels, in a distressing disguise. Symbolically, the Tree of Life is the cross on which Jesus dies. On the cross, Jesus dies for all the sins of all people for all time. Jesus’ death brings us new life. Jesus’ death reverses the effect of the Fall. Jesus’ death frees creation from the futility of sin and destroys death itself.

As for that Garden in Eden, if it once was a real place geographically, nobody has ever been able to pinpoint that place. Genesis itself provides maddeningly imprecise directions for finding it. Presumably, it’s long gone, covered by the sands of history.

But it’s still there, isn’t it? It’s still there as a longing for wholeness, a longing for the good life that once was that we have never quite tasted, the life where God reigns, and you can go for walks with God in the cool of the evening, and all is shalom, all is peace, all is right with the world. It’s a life that Jesus can restore to us all – and will.


 “Fallout” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Oct. 20, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 89:1,8-15, Genesis 3:6-24.

I’m with Ellen

One more sign that a lot of people have simply lost their minds.

TV show host Ellen DeGeneres was seen publicly hanging out with former President George W. Bush. The two are friends.

In today’s America it is apparently not possible to be friends with someone you might disagree with about something.

DeGeneres and Bush both were roasted, from both sides of the lunatic fringe, for associating with the likes of the other.

She responded: “When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone. Doesn’t matter.”

That only stoked the fires of rage from the demented ones.

Bush is also known to be friends with Hillary Clinton – an offense even worse than getting along with Ellen DeGeneres.

I don’t know what part of the “Love your neighbor” and “Love your enemies” thing people don’t get, only that politics is supposed to rule everything in today’s America.

And if that is so, it is even worse than Trump abandoning the Kurds to be slaughtered by the Turks.


We have reached the point in the Genesis narrative that is usually called “the Fall,” with a capital “F,” meaning that this is a major event in human history.

If it was such a big deal, you’d think that the rest of the Old Testament would constantly point back to it and say: “This is where everything went wrong.” But the remainder of the Old Testament never directly refers to it. Maybe that’s because its significance is simply assumed. Or maybe it’s thought that the story is so powerful that it needs no explanation.

That is the general way of scripture. Scripture teaches through story, not through the recitation of points of doctrine. And this is a powerful story.

Certainly by the time we get to the New Testament, the event related here is considered a pivotal point in the drama of salvation. It’s commonly thought that this is what Jesus came to reverse. Writing to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul says: “In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22, CEB) For Paul, Jesus is the Second Adam who corrects what the First Adam got wrong.

Strictly speaking, according to our story, he’s not Adam yet. He’s still “the man,” and Eve is still “the woman.” But since we all know this as the story of Adam and Eve, and it’s cumbersome to keep calling them “the man” and “the woman,” from now on we’ll call them Adam and Eve.

Their story is fairly simple and straightforward, but it has been complicated by centuries of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and abuse. It begins: “Now the serpent was more cunning than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.”

We commonly think that this was no mere snake but Satan, the devil, the father of lies, in the guise of a snake. A couple of passages in the New Testament suggest this, and some early Christian theologians say that it is so. Over the years, an elaborate mythology has grown up about fallen angels and one in particular named Lucifer, who is said to have led a heavenly revolt against God. None of this is remotely biblical, though the Bible is often cited as the basis of it. *

What’s at stake is responsibility for the existence of evil. If this is just an ordinary, garden-variety snake, we have to explain why it’s trying to trick Adam and Eve. What’s its motive? But if the snake is actually Satan in disguise, it’s easy to say that, as usual, he’s just up to no good.

In some people’s minds, this shifts the blame from the humans to Satan. But if Satan is a fallen angel, he also is part of God’s creation, and shifting the blame to him tells us nothing about the origin of evil. Most importantly, it does not get God off the hook for creating a world in which evil exists. So the origin of evil remains a mystery.

Ultimately, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, we must realize that “It is not the purpose of the Bible to give information about the origin of evil,” but rather “to witness to the character of evil.” (Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 65)

In its witness to the character of evil, our story says nothing about fallen angels or Satan or Lucifer. The text clearly identifies the snake as one of the wild animals that God created. We can’t quite call it an ordinary snake, though. Two things about it stand out. One, it’s especially cunning. Two, it can talk.

Perhaps the novelty of a snake talking is why Eve is not alarmed but appears to be charmed when the snake begins to speak. You might imagine her saying to Adam, “O look, it’s a talking snake.” Adam is there, by the way. The snake doesn’t speak to Eve alone. You can’t see it in the English translations, but when the snake speaks, the “you” in Hebrew is always plural. The snake is speaking to both Adam and Eve. Though he says nothing, Adam is standing there the whole time.

The snake begins with an apparently innocent question: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

I say that’s an “apparently” innocent question because it’s not innocent at all. It’s a carefully constructed lie that subtly calls the character of God into question. In fact, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of all trees in the garden except one. They shouldn’t even touch that one, Eve says.

God never said anything about touching the tree. Eve adds that part. Probably she does not intend to misrepresent what God said. Rather, she wants to intensify the command, to put a fence around the tree to keep them from coming any closer to it, lest they eat from it and die.

But the snake has now lured Eve into a trap that she could never have imagined was even there. “You will not die,” he says, “for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

What do Adam and Eve know of good and evil? No more than they know of death. How do you discern good from evil? How can you know which is which? You learn in two ways: through personal experience, or through the experience of others distilled in an elusive thing we call wisdom.

They have limited experience. As for wisdom, the testimony throughout the Bible is clear: true wisdom comes from God alone. But the snake tells them that eating from this tree will give them wisdom without God. They will become like God, in that they will know what is good and what is evil. They will acquire wisdom on their own.

Like a finely cut diamond, this story has many facets. Let’s look at a few of them.

First, there is the command of God, “Don’t eat from this tree.”

We all want to do what we’re told not to do. Ever tell a child “no”? I remember when our daughters was maybe a year and a half old. She went to her mother and made a request. Her mother said “no.” She immediately trotted across the room to where I was sitting and made the same request to me. It apparently did not occur to her that I might have overheard her talking to her mom. It also apparently did not occur to her that I also might say “no.” When I did, she went away in a huff.

Nobody likes to be told “no.” Animals don’t like it any more than humans do. Your dog doesn’t like to be told “no.” He may obey, but he doesn’t like the word “no.” Your cat, who is less likely to obey, doesn’t like it either. Neither do other domesticated animals or livestock. They may obey, but be careful when you turn your back on them.

God gives every living creature a great amount of freedom. Animals are limited by their instincts, which are hard-wired in them. But they also enjoy the freedom to want and to choose. God gave us all freedom, and we all enjoy it. We all say, “I want what I want, even if I’ve been told ‘no.’ ”

Giving us such freedom was, and is, risky for God. First, God risks disobedience. God wants what is best for us, so a command from God will be for our good. When we disobey, it is likely to get us into trouble that we could have avoided.

Secondly, but probably more importantly, God risks loss of relationship. When we disobey, we distance ourselves from God. The more often we disobey, the more embarrassing our situation becomes, and the more distance we want to put between ourselves and God, and the more trouble we get into that we could have avoided if we had just obeyed in the first place.

But God will not control us. God will not micromanage our lives. God grants us self-will and the freedom to pursue it. In so doing, surely God knows that we are sometimes going to exercise that self-will and freedom in ways that God judges as unwise. But God is willing to take that risk, because if we do not have freedom, we cannot love.

We can love only if we have the freedom not to love. So if we are going to live with God in any sort of loving relationship, it has to be a free relationship. We have to be free to not love God or ourselves or our neighbors. The Bible’s consistent witness is not only that God loves us but that God also desires our love. But God cannot and will not compel it, because love that is compelled is not love at all.

Just as we cannot love without the freedom not to love, we cannot obey without the freedom not to obey. What keeps us from not obeying is trust based on love. We trust that God loves us. Therefore, we trust that God knows what is best for us. Therefore, we obey God’s command.

What we have here in this story is a failure to trust. Trust is perhaps the central issue of our relationship with God. I’m not talking about faith, which is usually interpreted only in terms of head knowledge and intellectual assent to certain propositions. I’m talking about trust; the kind that means putting your life on the line in a crucial moment because you are certain that God will act in a positive way on your behalf.

Remember the book “The Shack,” which became a movie? What’s the central issue for Mack, the main character? It’s trust. Does he or does he not trust God? Reread the stories of your favorite Bible heroes and heroines, and rethink them through the lens of trust. Trust is always the core issue in their walk with God. Trust is always the core issue in all our lives.

What we have here is a failure to trust. Adam and Eve are curious. They want knowledge. The snake insinuates that God doesn’t want them to have it. God’s “no” then becomes a challenge. If God won’t let them have what they seek, they will get it another way. They will eat from the forbidden tree and acquire knowledge on their own.

The snake’s lie is that God does not want them to be wise. God surely does want them to acquire wisdom. But they must learn that true wisdom can be acquired only from God. Any other source will be polluted. That’s why there’s no child-proof cap on the tree, no impregnable fence keeping them away from it. God wants them to eat from that tree, but only when God has prepared them for the experience. And they’re not ready.

Naïve, innocent, gullible – call them what you want. Lacking wisdom, they make a poor choice. They seek wisdom not from God but from a tree. However, note carefully that our story never calls their act sinful. The word “sin” does not appear until chapter 4 of Genesis, and we’re still in chapter 3.

What they do may be sin. Or it may be simply an innocent mistake. It may be a necessary mistake. It may be something they have to do to grow up as human beings.

However you describe their motives, the fruit of the tree looks healthy and attractive, so

Eve plucks some and eats, and she gives some to Adam, who is standing right by her, and he eats, too. And the eyes of both of them are opened. And their world is never the same again. Their new world is our world, the world we inherit from them, a world in which we all experience good and evil first-hand.

This is not a story of something that happened to two people a long time ago. This is a story of something that happens to each of us in our lifetimes. We want something, and we reach out to take it, because we want it, and before we know it, this small act of rebellion has become a full-fledged insurrection. It’s now a way of being, a way of standing in opposition against God, against others, and even against our very selves.

The snake was right about one thing. After disobeying God, Adam and Eve don’t die – at least not physically. They do die to their previous innocent and naïve understanding of the world. And they do die spiritually, to some extent, because, as we’ll see, their act has profound effects on all their relationships. The simple intimacy they once had with God, with each other and with all other creatures is now gone.

That intimacy is gone because there are some things that you can see but you can’t un-see, things that you can say that you can’t un-say, and things that you can do that you can’t un-do.

They fail to trust God. They disobey a command. They eat from the forbidden tree. And their eyes are opened to a new reality. It’s not a better reality. But it’s our reality, too. It’s where we all live. It’s a reality we cannot escape on their own. But God is faithful to us even when we are not faithful to God. To that and related things we will turn next week.


* In the King James Version, Isaiah 14.12 refers to the fallen king of Babylon as “Lucifer, son of the morning star,” who is “fallen from heaven” and “cut down to the ground.” In the imaginations of some interpreters, the passage is connected to Luke 10:18, where Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” The name “Lucifer” is derived from the Latin Vulgate translation of “day star,” or Venus. The passage in Isaiah is about the king of Babylon, who has fallen from a great height. It is not about an angel named Lucifer who fell from God’s grace. There is no need to link this passage and Jesus’ saying in Luke.

“Deception” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Oct. 13, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 146.1-10, Genesis 3:1-7a.

We got trouble

Oh we got trouble, right here in America, and it starts with T and it rhymes with tater, and it stands for Traitor Trump.

The latest outrage is the betrayal of the Kurds. When Trump first took office, he began abandoning treaties, loudly announcing to the world that a treaty with the United States isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Now he’s abandoning a trusted ally, loudly announcing to all who don’t know it already that making an alliance with the United States is setting yourself up to be stabbed in the back.

A few years ago, America had a fair reputation worldwide. Now it’s widely considered a rogue nation. It has become one of those shithole countries Trump is always bashing. It makes me feel ashamed.

The Democrat-led House is right to begin impeachment of this immoral con artist. Would that some invertebrates in both House and Senate would step up to rid us of this menace before he announces that Article Two of the Constitution says he can do anything he wants, so he’s disbanding Congress altogether.

You think he won’t try? He has spent nearly three years surrounding himself with amoral yes men who willingly do his bidding, no matter how unlawful it is. And don’t think, my “conservative” friends, that you will be left unscathed. When real elections are abolished and he no longer needs your vote, he’ll grind you underfoot like the vermin he thinks you are.


The first two chapters of Genesis tell of the glories of God creating the world. Chapter three is a tragedy.

Or maybe it’s a coming of age story. Or maybe it’s both. Maybe it sounds like a tragedy to us because we mourn the loss of those carefree days before we grew up, just as the first humans must have mourned their loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden.

Most often you’ll hear what happens here described as “the Fall.” But it’s more than if you merely tripped on a tree root and took a fall while walking in the yard. This is “the Fall,” with a capital F. It’s usually called “the Fall of Man,” meaning “the Fall of Humanity.” Women are included, it’s not just men, though women usually get blamed for it.

“In Adam’s fall we sinned all.” That’s what the New England Primer of 1777 says. There may be some truth in that, or maybe it’s just bad poetry expressing theology that’s not much better. Let’s try to scrape off a few centuries of theological barnacles so maybe we can look at the story with fresh eyes.

The man and the woman – they have no names yet – live in what can only be called Paradise. They have been placed in this garden to till it and keep it. They labor six out of seven days and rest on the seventh day, as commanded by their creator. And their labor is rewarded with an abundance of good food.

Conditions are ideal, and all forms of life flourish to their fullest. Later generations will invent a word to describe this idyllic state of life. The word is shalom.

In this state of shalom, all creatures live in right relationship with one another and with God. As one commentator says, the environment of Eden is “so ecologically ideal that in no instance does life feed off the taking of life. Animals eat grass, not each other.” Humans, too, are vegetarian. (Paul Borgman, Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard, 27)

No living being has to die for another to survive. Every living creature that is animated by the breath of life from God respects the life of all other creatures that are animated by the breath of life from God.

The two humans, so obviously made for each other, are naked and feel no shame. They have no secrets from each other. They are innocent lovers. Yes – lovers.

Some early Christian commentators – and some still today – maintain that sex is shameful and evil, so the man and the woman could never have had sexual relations at this point in their relationship. Sex had to come after the Fall, they say, because sex is sinful. I think that attitude is hogwash, and it is not supported by this or any other biblical text.

The man and the woman have nothing to be ashamed of, and they are lovers. They feel no shame in their nakedness not because they feel no sexual desire for each other but because their desire has not been corrupted by sin. Yes, that will come later, after the Fall, as it were. But now their desire is healthy and good.

It’s natural for us to interpret this story in light of our own stories, and our own attitudes toward sex. We can’t help but do that, because part of what this story trying to do is explain our story. It explains, for example, that when a man and a woman come together, they become “one flesh.” Not literally, of course, but they are so close sometimes that they feel as if they were one.

In this story, they once were one, of course. Before God separated them as male and female, they were what the narrator simply calls “the human.” God concluded that it was not good for the human to be alone.

We should all remember that. All of us go through periods of aloneness and loneliness; times when we feel disconnected from others and unable to relate to them. As long as these are relatively brief occasions, they can be healthy, because they remind us how valuable connection with others is to our total well-being.

Long-term, though, it is not good for any of us to be alone. I’m an introvert. Where extroverts need time with people to re-energize, I need occasional time away from people to re-energize. But after awhile even introverts know that they need the company of others. Long-term, I am not my best friend. Too much time alone leads to self-destruction.

Remember the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.

“Two are better than one … For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-11)

Having once been together as one, maybe the primordial duo yearns for their original oneness. Maybe they can say to each other, “You complete me,” as if each lacked something that only the other could provide. Or maybe it’s not a lack of something to receive from the other, but rather something each wants to give to the other.

God created humans in God’s own image and likeness. Did God do this out of a desire to be revered by humans? Or did God do it out of a desire to expand the sphere of God’s love to include humans? Didn’t God create simply and freely out of love?

It wasn’t good for the human to be alone because the human needed someone to stand opposite him and be his partner. So God separated man and woman to stand against each other and with each other as partners and as lovers.

Is it so hard to accept that they are lovers? Is it so hard to imagine that they are in love with each other and in love with life itself? For their love surely extends beyond just the two of them. Not only do they get along great with each other and with all other of God’s creatures, they also get along great with God. God shows up early in the evenings, when it’s breezy and cool, and they go for walks in the garden, and they talk. They talk easily, for their relationship is open and easy.

What do they talk about? Well, what would you talk about on a long walk with God? Would you pepper God with questions about why things aren’t perfect in your world? Would you ask God all the “why” questions you could think of? “Why are there wasps? What were you thinking when you created them?” Or would you just open your mind and spirit to God and together discover where a conversation without an agenda might lead? Some people still do that today, by the way. It’s called contemplative prayer.

For the man and the woman, each day ends with a walk with God in the cool of the evening. Each day is a beautiful day in the neighborhood that God created and called Eden.

But the seeds of trouble have been planted. In the center of the garden is a certain tree.

Before God separated them into man and woman, God told them: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

If you’re a stickler for annoying details, you’ll see a discrepancy here. In the great hymn of creation from Genesis 1, God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”

But this version of the story comes from a different hand, and the editors who set these two stories side by side are not bothered by discrepancies in detail. Whatever God may have said before, in that other story, God now says, in this story, “Don’t eat from this tree. Do it, and you’ll die.”

Well, what do the man and the woman know of death? Have they seen any animal die, of any cause, even old age? Having little or no first-hand experience of death, they have no understanding of what death is. They are so innocent in so many ways. They are so naïve in so many ways. They are about to grow up fast.

Each of us has a coming of age story. One day, I am a child, an adolescent. The next thing I know, I’m a grownup, an adult. Maybe I could see the change coming from a long distance. Maybe it took a full season for me to feel the full ramifications of it. Or maybe it just happened, all at once, in one event that was both wrenching and exhilarating, horrible and wonderful at the same time.

Everybody loves a good coming of age story. They are among the most popular stories of all. Think of such movies as “The Lion King” and the Harry Potter adventures, such TV series as “Happy Days” and “That ‘70s Show,” such novels as Catcher in the Rye and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

We relate to these stories because we’ve all been there. We’ve gone through some of the same agonies. We’ve known some of the same triumphs. These stories may be about others, but at the same time they’re also about each of us.

That’s one reason the story of these two lovers in paradise engages us so much. We know that we’re part of their story. This story is out story, too. Maybe it happens just this way in each of our lives. Or maybe it happens in other, similar, ways with the same effect. Whatever the chain of events, we see ourselves in it.

Well, why can’t they eat from this one tree? What’s wrong with it? Why does God forbid it? As we’ll see in next week’s installment of the story, they both eat from it, willingly, knowingly, standing side by side. Having never known temptation before, not even knowing what temptation is, they are easy prey for a tempter. The results are tragic.

Some years ago, a writer named Judith Viorst wrote a book called Necessary Losses. It’s about the losses every person encounters while growing to maturity and how, as painful as they are, each of these losses is necessary if we are to achieve maturity.

Was what happened at this tree in the Garden of Eden a necessary loss? Did it have to happen so that humans could advance in knowledge and in their relationship with God? Do they have to lose their innocence before they can grow up?

I have a pill bottle that I got from my pharmacist. It has a special screw-on cap that works two ways. One way is child resistant. To unlock the cap, you have to push down a tab with the thumb of one hand while you unscrew the top with your other hand. It’s tricky enough for an adult. It’s unlikely a child could do it. But flip the cap over, and it simply screws on and off the bottle with little effort. Any child could do it, it’s so easy.

The Tree of Knowledge did not have a child-proof cap. I wonder why it didn’t. I think that if I were God, and I didn’t want people messing with that tree, I’d put something like a child-proof cap on it, or a big fence or something. But God didn’t do that. Were the man and the woman set up for a fall? Did God make it so easy to disobey that they almost had to do it? Was it necessary for them to disobey so they would grow up?

I raise that question not necessarily because I think that’s the case, but because it’s one of the many possibilities that this story raises, one of the many intriguing things that make it as relevant today as when it was first told many hundreds of years ago.

Today we’ve set the scene. Next week we’ll see the story play out. It starts, amusingly enough, with a talking snake. Does that catch your attention? It catches the attention of the man and the woman, too. And once they’re hooked, they’re easy prey for the catch.

“Partners” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Oct. 6, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 19:1-6, Psalm 33:6-9, Genesis 2:16-17, 3:1.

My new book

Hot off the press, more or less, is my new book: Keeping Christmas: Finding Joy in a Season of Excess and Strife.

It’s available on Amazon at full cover price ($17) or at for $12.27. Go Cokesbury!

It’s about how we’ve used and abused the birthday of Jesus for 16 centuries, and how you can still find meaning in the story despite those who want to hijack the holiday for their own agendas.